[Artwork by Mariusz Lewandowski]
Many enthusiasts of heavy metal expect or even demand progression as a qualifier before vaulting a new release into “essential” status. To an extent, it’s an understandable optimism—progression is exciting, and without it the genre ultimately shrivels and dies on the vine. But as bands across sub-genres have proven time and again with excruciating results, just because you sport the latest bells and whistles, or regardless if you manage to identify a new bell or whistle, you ain’t even pulling the rig out of the driveway if you can’t find a way to be engaging with all them tricksies tucked inside your rucksack. “Engaging” thumps “innovation” in a world where Coffins’ Beyond the Circular Demise wins at death metal without putting a single toe outside the guidelines and Lulu continues to float in the bowl after hundreds of thousands and millions of flushes.
Stygian, the band’s debut full-length, passes through with all the urgency of an Ent on its way to a town council meeting (that equates to slow, for all you sentients who wouldn’t know Fangorn Forest from Central Park), and the darkness and general heaviness (the five-starriest of all the generals) throughout the full 45-minute excursion is enough to make you wish you’d packed a nightlight and a stuffed animal to help lighten the mood. The album weaves a yarn about a warrior cursed with immortality through the power of a godsword who witnesses the death of the sun and is damned to walk a glacial planet for eternity with literally no one left to cuddle. A narrative such as this couldn’t be more suited for two insanely funereal tracks (16 and 23-minutes long, respectively) split by a single 5-minute interlude that’s as grim as a burial in the Carpathians in the dead of winter.
Does Atramentus do the thing that elevates funeral doom into novel and progressive realms? Hell no they don’t, you lovable bumpkin, you! Nor should they, given how rare good funeral doom is. Stygian is an album that will fit comfortably alongside selections from Skepticism, Evoken and Tyranny, and its bleak, frozen stride will salute the impending autumnal months that slowly shift into cruel winter with all the reverence of a defender anticipating the knightly touch of steel to brave shoulders.
Please do not mistake the album’s preference for staying inside the lines lead you to believe the record operates strictly by the numbers, though. There is a great deal more going on beneath the surface than just playing slow ’n’ heavy and even slower ’n’ heavier, and that’s likely the result of having some of metal’s more active and innovative players inside the circle—specifically Phil Tougas (Chthe’ilist, Eternity’s End, First Fragment, Funebrarum, Cosmic Atrophy) on guitar and vocals, Claude Leduc (Chthe’ilist, Sutrah) on guitar, and Xavier Berthiaume (Gevurah) on drums and providing the recording / engineering / mixing magick. That’s not meant to take away from the other two members’ contributions (Francois Bilodeau on keyboards and Antione Daigneault on bass), but you can definitely hear gloomy tendrils of Chthe’ilist and hints of Gevurah’s vileness sneaking through all the shadowy and frigid atmosphere here. The excerpt above provides a quick peek into the more straightforward of the two principal cuts, and it surely indicates the players involved are fully versed in the requisite funereal spellbook, because notes of Profetus and Esoteric (related note: Greg Chandler mastered the album) color the corners when those majestic organs and distressed screams scooch into the spotlight.
The album’s interlude, “In Ageless Slumber (As I Dream In The Doleful Embrace of the Howling Black Winds),” is an essential and wonderful bridge between the main bookends—it is beautifully alluring and sepulchral and strangely empowering, and the sudden hoary gasp at its conclusion startles the listener back to full attention before the closing piece seals the tomb with 23 minutes of splendid goddamned misery. “Perennial Voyage (Across The Perpetual Planes of Crying Frost & Steel-Eroding Blizzards)” is the total show-stopper here, folks. Robed, 200ft-tall extraterrestrial godheads are real, and their voices scrape like shifting mountains as the ghosts of abbots eulogize your tormenting perpetuity. The imposing church organs that draped the walls of the first cut are mostly sacrificed here in favor of long, winding leads that sing of tragedy like a rotten choir, and the results hint at a more spectral, ethereal interpretation of Mournful Congregation’s The Book of Kings, which is a wonderful thing.
Again, does Atramentus guide funeral doom into uncharted waters? No, not especially. But why should they—people who consume this style generally hope the contenders will hold fast to the principal tenets and then color the corners with enough interesting ornamentation to allow the record to stand out. In that regard, Stygian truly hits on all cylinders. You get a sense that these guys have a deep enough appreciation of the roots to allow clues of classic bands to trickle through, but there’s well enough unique perspective to ensure Atramentus stands alone with a singular offering through Stygian. Whether or not that end product belongs in your ears depends entirely on how you feel about allowing the soundtrack to a sunless and undying existence on a cursed and frozen planet into your modern world. If that sparks a positive reaction, then get ready to be pulverized into powder… Very slowly.